Virtual Reality: The Literature of Suspending Disbelief

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‘Virtual Reality’ is a poetry anthology born out of interactions between eight poets (Aakash Sagar Chauhan, Anindita Bose, Daipayan Nair, Geethanjali Dilip, Gauri Dixit, Sunila Khemchandani, Fatima Afghan and Lily Swarn) in the virtual domain of Facebook. The launch of the book was held in Kolkata, on December 24, 2016, at Asutosh Birth Centenary Auditorium, Indian Museum. The chief guests at the event were author Rajnish Gambhir, poet and academician Dr. Sharmila Ray, and the Director of American Library, Dr. Sushanta Banerjee. The launch was preceded by a discussion on virtual reality by a panel of the guests, where Amit, the author, delivered the speech, published in Different Truths, exclusively.

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three.

‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast set:

May’st hear the merry din.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,

‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye –

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

This is how starts the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There is an important aspect in this poem, which in our literature classes we discuss as the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ The poet creates in this poem a skeleton of facts comprising accurate geographical details of a voyage but fleshes it out with a fantastic story where spirits converse, dead sailors row a ship, and the whole supernatural apparatus is brought into use. And yet the readers are sucked into the story of the ancient mariner. This is the willing suspension of disbelief induced by Coleridge’s poetry.

The question that naturally arises is – what is its relationship with virtual reality? Let us start at the beginning. What does the dictionary say about these words – ‘virtual’, ‘reality’ and ‘virtual reality’? Virtual means something that is ‘in effect, though not in fact’. And what is reality? Reality is the state or fact of being actually existing and not imagined. Now we move to virtual reality. Virtual reality in common parlance is something that is computer generated, something simulated. It is a technologically-driven phenomenon but alongside we should also remember that the origin of the word virtual is from the root word ‘virtue’.

Peter Otto in his article, Romanticism, Modernity, and Virtual Reality, quotes Elizabeth Grosz,

The virtual reality of the computer is fundamentally no different from the virtual reality of writing, reading, drawing or even thinking: the virtual is the space of emergence of the new, the unthought, the unrealized…1

Human beings have been striving to achieve the state of virtual reality since long and through various media. The huge wall paintings of the late Roman period create an illusion that the viewer is in the midst of the scene depicted. A story or a poem too creates such an illusion of getting transported as if into a different dimension, a different world. When one listens to a classical symphony, one gets transported to a different universe altogether. All these are instances or attempts at achieving virtual reality. When the Lumiere Brothers showed their 50-second footage of the world’s first moving image depicting the arrival of a train at a station, the visual direction of the train coming closer and closer on the screen resulted in people frantically leaving the theatre where it was shown. That too was virtual reality.

In the invocation scene of Kalidasa’s Abhignam Sakuntalam, the ‘sutradhar’ is talking to the audience as well as inquiring about the delay in the start of the play at ‘nepathya’, which has Virtual Reality: The Literature of Suspending Disbelief by Dr. Amit Shankar Saha dual meaning of both the makeup man (‘Ne’ means eye in Sanskrit) and someone who is out of sight. At one point in time, in the midst of this conversation, the first character rushes on to the stage and the play starts. The audience immediately gets transported into the time of King Dushyanta. This is, I say, Kalidasa’s attempt at virtual reality where he sucks the audience into the action of the play through his artistic device of storytelling in drama.

The possibility of virtual reality depends on the limit of perception of reality at a particular point in time of human development. And each age has its own technique to simulate reality mediated through words of a poem, through moving images on screen or through digital goggles and sensors on the body. Our everyday perception, which we think is real, is often virtual. Take the example of seeing an apple where we see only a portion of the apple’s surface at a time and yet we claim to see it whole. Similarly, when we listen to music or read a book, we only listen to a part of it at a time or read a part of it at a time respectively and the brain interprets the disjointed real perceptions into the perception of unity in the virtual domain. So, we have been living with an illusion of reality always and willingly suspended our disbelief without knowing it. Perhaps that is why Jean Baudrillard asserts that virtual reality marks ‘the end of illusion, the illusion that there is a real world.’2

T. S. Eliot has considered ‘Dante in the absolute scale and Baudelaire in modern times’ as the two greatest artisans who helped in the ‘expansion of reality’ in poetry.3 What is this expansion of reality? It is generally interpreted that it means to remove ornamentations in rhetoric and diction from poetry and make it more real. But how real is Aligheri Dante’s Divine Comedy? How real are Charles Baudelaire’s poems? How real is Eliot’s The Waste Land? They are only real in effect and not in fact. We willingly suspend our disbelief to perceive Dante’s hell or Eliot’s wasteland because they too, like Coleridge, give us skeletons of reality fleshed with imagination and thereby inducing us to go into the domain of the virtual.

Every story, every poem evokes this atmosphere of virtual reality and it need not be science fiction only. This power of sucking the reader into a different world is embedded in the literariness of the text. In Act IV, Scene I of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”, he was not far from anticipating the virtual reality of sleeping and dreaming as depicted in movies like The Matrix and Avatar. It is the moment of poetic faith that makes it possible to transgress between the thresholds of the real and the virtual.

And it is this poetic faith that brought a group of poets together in the virtual domain of Facebook and brought into reality the anthology of poems aptly titled, Virtual Reality. I congratulate Aakash Sagar Chauhan, Anindita Bose, Daipayan Nair, Fatima Afshan, Gauri Dixit, Geethanjali Dilip, Lily Swarm and Sunila Khemchandani for their excellent effort.

1 Grosz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2001, p. 78.

2 Otto, Peter. Romanticism, Modernity, and Virtual Reality: An Overview and Reconceptualisation of the Field. Australian Humanities Review, Issue 46, May, 2009. and-virtual- reality-an- overview-and-reconceptualisation-of- the-field/

3 Guha, Chinmoy. Where the Dreams Cross. Delhi: Macmillan Publishers, 2011, p. 119.

©Dr. Amit Shankar Saha

Photos from the internet.

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is a professor in Seacom Skills University. He is also a short story writer and a poet. He did his PhD in English from Calcutta University. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature (Short Story-2015), Wordweavers Prize (Poetry-2011, Short story-2014), The Leaky Pot – Stranger than Fiction Prize (2014), Asian Cha – Void Poetry Prize (2014), Reuel Prize (Poetry, Shortlisted-2016). He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets group.